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The state of diversity and inclusion in NBA front offices

League execs Mark Tatum and Oris Stuart discuss successes and challenges

The New York Knicks entered the 2019-20 season with the league’s only African American trio at president, general manager and head coach. Through the course of the season, however, Knicks head coach David Fizdale and president Steve Mills were relieved of their duties, leaving general manager Scott Perry as the last one standing.

On March 2, the Knicks hired longtime NBA agent Leon Rose as their new president. While the African American trio leading the Knicks is no more, top NBA executives are confident that the lack of success in New York will not have a negative effect on hiring African Americans in lead roles in the future.

“I don’t view it as it didn’t work,” NBA Deputy Commissioner Mark Tatum told The Undefeated during All-Star Weekend. “These are difficult, difficult jobs to run a team. Look, Scott is still in charge and is the GM. It is telling that [Knicks executive chairman] Jim [Dolan] had no qualms about hiring a black president, a black GM and a black head coach. I’m not sure that many people focused on it and said, ‘Wow, look at that.’

“And that is because that kind of construct is the kind of construct you would expect in the NBA.”

Tatum and NBA executive vice president and chief diversity and inclusion officer Oris Stuart recently sat down with The Undefeated to talk about the state of diversity and inclusion in the league’s front offices and coaching staffs, which now also include more women.

In 2016, when you spoke to The Undefeated, there were two black NBA team presidents and three black general managers. Today, there are six black general managers, one Hispanic general manager, one Asian general manager and one black president. From then to now, how do you feel about the diversity in NBA front offices?

Tatum: Since that time, we have made progress. Obviously, the number of people of color in front-office positions has increased. But the numbers are just one part. As we talked to you several years ago, it was really about the process in creating a diverse and inclusive culture. That’s what we have done and really focused on.

We’re doing things like inclusive training. It is not just required by everyone in our league, but we are rolling it out to teams as well so that our teams can better understand this concept of unconscious bias and building an inclusive instinct. And not going back to what you already know and what is familiar to you. That training is the first part of helping our teams and everyone in the league understand that there is a culture that we want to build around inclusivity.

When we last did that interview 3½ years ago, we had 60-something assistant coaches [that are coaches of color]. Now, we have close to 90 assistant coaches that are coaches of color. We see the influx of women on the basketball operation side, many of which went through our basketball associate program, the likes of Allison Feaster, Lindsay Harding, who have gone on to roles with teams. That is what Oris, I and [NBA commissioner] Adam [Silver] as a league has been focused on.

Stuart: It’s a recurring conversation we are having at every level of the league from the governors, team presidents and decision-makers on the business and basketball side. And the conversation is to value diversity.

It’s about processes, it’s about learning experiences, it’s about programming. But it’s also about the people believing that the future of the game is about us becoming more inclusive. I’m excited about the progress we are making. There is a lot of work to do.

When do you discuss with teams how they’re doing on this front?

Tatum: There is a constant communication. Every time there is an open position we are on the phone with our teams. We actually built a diverse database of potential employees that our teams rely on and certainly the leagues rely on as well. For providing that resource that, ‘Here is a diverse group of candidates for you to consider.’

Every time there is an open position, we have direct conversations with team owners, with team presidents. And obviously, every time in the league office where there is an open position, we go back and look at the broadest pool possible of diverse talent.

Stuart: We are always also looking at the big picture. We are looking for evidence of patterns where we are not being inclusive in the approach we are taking. How do we find that evidence? If you see patterns where we made lots of hiring decisions and it doesn’t represent diversity. The best available isn’t necessarily going to be diverse regardless of the discipline. So, if we see patterns suggesting that we are not casting a wide enough net or being inclusive in our process, then we pay attention to that.

We have conversations with individual teams. But we want to have conversations with everyone to see the benefits of this effort.

Who are the model franchises in terms of diversity and inclusion?

Stuart: There are a lot of teams doing well in different ways. There is probably not one team that you would say they are excellent in all aspects. But from a gender standpoint, a team like OKC is very diverse in terms of how women show across the organization. From an ethnic and diversity standpoint, a team like Miami approaches about 70% of its workforce as a team of color … there are exemplary franchises in different sectors.

Tatum: Golden State is also a team that certainly values diversity. If you look at [Warriors president] Rick Welts’ team, they have African American counsel, a woman runs [Chase Center] as well.

Stuart: I would add Dallas. The appointment of Cynthia Marshall as a team president was done in a short amount of time. Fifty percent of her direct reports are women. They have people of color throughout. Those are just a few examples of the progress you can make if you focus on it.

How many teams are you concerned about in terms of lack of diversity?

Tatum: We work with all the teams. We have all the data. We know the data as well. Every single one of our teams gets it. Every single one of our teams knows it’s imperative. It is good for our business. It’s good for their team to build a diverse workforce to represent the fan base and the players on the court. That’s why they are engaging with us in these conversations.

I don’t view them as a concern because they’re not saying, ‘Hey, look, we don’t have an issue here. We’re good. We don’t need you.’ That is why Oris is busy. That’s why I am busy. These teams are saying, ‘We know we need to get there. Teach out how to get there. What resources do we need to have? Who do we need to talk to? How do we get there? What agencies do we need to hire?’ Those are the conversations we are having with all of our teams.

Four years ago, there was not much talk about women working on NBA coaching and front-office staffs. Today, there has been an influx of women on both. How is that evolving now and for the future?

Stuart: Let’s first talk about what Adam said about the importance of women showing up across the league. We have increased the number of women in referee roles. We’ve talked about increasing the number of women in coaching roles. And we’ve seen that happen. It’s because [Silver] emphasizes it. It’s also because of the conversations we’ve been having.

There is a recognition that there is an incredible amount of talent out there of all different backgrounds and an increasing interest and expectation to take a broader look, to cast a wider net … what you are seeing with women is the advancement in those roles is a better opportunity for anyone who is getting themselves ready for being in the game. The quality of competition is going to increase and there is going to be an equity of opportunity.

Tatum: To me it is just evidence of these teams really getting it. These teams really saying, ‘We get what building an inclusive culture and environment is.’ We know what it’s not. What it is not is going back to your network and who you know, who has done this before. When you have an inclusive mindset, you stop and say, ‘OK, what are the skill sets that we need?’ Very rarely do you ever say, if ever, ‘That person needs to be a man or that person needs to be a woman.’ You go back to the skill set and then that broadens the pool of people.

And then that opens people’s minds to say, ‘You know what? [San Antonio Spurs assistant coach] Becky Hammon understands the game. [Washington Wizards assistant coach] Kristi Toliver understands the game as well as anyone else. [Boston Celtics assistant coach] Kara Lawson. [Sacramento Kings assistant coach] Lindsey Harding. They understand the game as much as anybody else.

OK, maybe they don’t have the extensive experience as everyone else. But they exhibit the skills to have on the coaching staff or basketball operations staff. We just announced recently that [G League president] Shareef Abdur-Rahim, the first Muslim American president of a league, hired a chief operating officer [Portia Archer] who is a black woman who came from NBC Universal. Shareef didn’t go to the traditional, ‘Who worked for a team? Who has done this stuff before?’ He said, ‘No, I need a real business operator.’

He interviewed a diverse pool of talent and a woman who basically ran the OTT [over-the-top media services] for NBC Universal and NBC Sports rose to the top. That speaks to the culture that our team has, that the league has of saying, ‘Let’s find the best possible person.’

Stuart: What is harder to really understand or sense is that there are people coming from diverse experience backgrounds bringing their expertise from outside of sports. That is a different part of the conversation. They just happened to be people of color. But the openness to consider incredible talent regardless of the sector that they operated is just another example of being open-minded, being inclusive, casting a wide net. Again, this is all about growing the game.

What is the biggest challenge with teams in terms of diversity and inclusion?

Stuart: We are still working through historical legacy processes. It’s one thing to lean into something new. But you still have years of history, networks and our whole ecosystems that have created our current status. So, you first change some minds and then the hearts and actions follow with that. The biggest challenge is just not getting people to believe, but getting some of our legacy processes to get unwrapped, repacked and repurposed.

Tatum: It takes time, especially in our industry particularly on the business side and less so on the basketball side where there isn’t as much turnover. There aren’t that many of these jobs. They don’t turn over that much. Our focus is on building that pipeline so when those opportunities do become available there is, one, the will and the desire to take a more inclusive approach. And two, there is such a pipeline of talent there that are willing to step into those opportunities.

We would love to move faster. We see tremendous progress. But sometimes these things take time.

What are you most proud of in regards to diversity and inclusion over the past couple of years?

Stuart: There is a lot to be proud of. There is a lot of work. It is hard to celebrate or be proud of progress when there is so much more we are working on. I would say the number of women that are showing up now in assistant coaching roles. It shows they have the skill and ability and now they’re there. But there is more to come.

That dramatic shift in just 24 months or so really reflects a huge shift in the mentality of the people we’re hiring. So, that is a huge outcome.

Tatum: I am superproud of a guy like [Toronto Raptors president] Masai [Ujiri]. I’m not taking any credit of Masai. But I am proud of what Masai is doing. He is recognized as a world-class executive. He is not recognized as a world-class black executive or African executive. He is recognized as a world-class executive who has won a championship. That speaks volumes to us as a league and continuing that legacy of African Americans, people of color, women in our league. He’s not viewed narrowly. He is viewed broadly.

And that really speaks to us as a league and the Raptors as an organization. That organization has been a role model, too, when you have an African president, a woman executive and a person of color as a general manager (Webster is part-Japanese) and the team he has built. When you have an African president, a woman executive and a person of color as a general manager, you win a championship – having Kawhi Leonard doesn’t hurt either, but they build that around him. And that is something we can all be proud of in the legacy of this league.

Stuart: I’m proud of a league that gets it the way we do. We have a long legacy of being committed to inclusion. But I’ve worked in my career with maybe 150, 200 organizations at various capacities. On the topics of diversity and inclusion, this is one organization that is second to none in terms of belief and activation.

Can you talk about the responsibility you have in your jobs as well as how proud you are to have them?

Tatum: It’s a tremendous responsibility. I’m incredibly proud of our organization of having the courage and foresight for putting a person like me in this role. I feel a sense of pride and a need to represent on behalf of folks all over. I do get lots of people reaching out. And I do know there are people that don’t reach out who are rooting for me. So, you do feel that sense of responsibility to do your job and do it well to pave that path for the next generation.

Stuart: There is not only pride but an expectation that if you work for the NBA, you’re going to take a certain approach to things, live certain values and be committed to move the needle. So, you do feel that sense of responsibility. The expectation is out there and you live for it. I couldn’t be happier about having the opportunity of working with these folks.

We have the benefit of not only knowing what we say but also appreciating what happened, what we do and how we do it. But that is a real source of pride.

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for Andscape. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.